Review: Dancing with Giants

At Illusion Theater, a world-premiere show entangles boxing in Nazi German politics

Dancing with Giants, a new show by New York playwright David Feldshuh—best known for his 1992 play and Pulitzer finalist about the unethical Tuskegee syphilis experiment conducted in the 1930s—makes its world debut this month at Minneapolis’ Illusion Theater. The show returns Feldshuh to the 1930s, this time just before WWII, as a New York boxing manager, a German boxing champ, and the American World Champ bond over sports in spite of rivalries. It’s Hitler’s rise that threatens their friendship, in a narrative arc that compels from start to finish.

On a stage with only a few props—and minimalist lighting, to prevent distraction—actress Tovah Feldshuh, known for The Walking Dead and her comedic turn in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, is the first to shuffle into view, wearing a blue vintage suit with a silver pocket watch dangling from her coat pocket. Her presence is immediate: She plays Joe Jacobs, a short, pudgy boxing manager and child at heart. He calls himself an “optometrist,” though he means “optimist.” Scratchy tunes floating from a garbled record player transport the audience to the late 1930s.

Jacobs’ story is a true one—and any audience members walking in without knowing this can look to archival photographs projected on an onstage screen, displaying old pictures of the men behind the characters as the story unfolds.

The events of World War II take hold while optimist Jacobs primes his underdog boxer, Max Schmeling from Germany, to take part in the world boxing championships. But going international has consequences. Competing in Europe, Jacobs has to keep Schmeling level-headed while the horrid beginnings of Nazi Germany surround them. Of Jewish descent, Jacobs tries to preserve Schmeling’s human decency while Schmeling receives hateful backlash from the people of his home country, not only for boxing in the U.S. as a German but also for being represented by a Jew. Fellow competitor Joe Louis initially bad-mouths Schmeling and demands to fight. But, over time, the two develop a strong friendship—one that Jacobs hopes can teach the world a thing or two about keeping the peace. 

Nazi official of propaganda Joseph Goebbels, played by James Cunningham, involves himself in Schmeling’s media-frenzied story, forcing Schmeling to choose between his country and his personal sense of ethics. Cunningham gives an outstanding performance, artfully portraying a manipulative and charming character who believes his actions are morally correct—no small feat, given the real-life figure’s prominence in the Nazi party.

Sam Bardwell, meanwhile, brings Max Schmeling to life beautifully as a man with a hardened German exterior who nonetheless fosters a deep, sensitive relationship with his boxing manager. Although Jacobs annoys him, Schmeling listens to his advice, going forward with his crazy suggestions despite potential embarrassment. In real life, Schmeling won a boxing match in Germany that resulted in the entire arena saluting Hitler. Feeling pressured, he joined in while his manager lay crippled on the floor, screaming for him to stop. Onstage, the incident of the salute had a powerful, chilling effect on the audience. You could feel the tension in the air.

The incredible Tovah Feldshuh rounds out the show by providing a stellar example of a powerful woman successfully playing a male role—in this case, a character with more than a hundred subcategories of personality. I asked Tovah how it feels to play Jacobs, and she reflected, “Optimism is a choice, a choice that a person makes despite obstacles. [Joe Jacobs] lifted me up. He lifts me up.”

Sam Bardwell, as Max Schmeling, felt emotionally moved playing a sensitive character whose actions nonetheless frustrate the audience at times. “His relationship with Joe Jacobs and Joe Louis showed who my character was internally, even though he may not have always showed that loyalty externally,” Bardwell says.

Overall, Dancing with Giants is an emotion-flipping show that connects you with each character, even the coldly mission-focused Goebbels. The actors, genuine and believable, make you feel what they feel, so that Feldshuh’s play unfolds as another gripping ethical drama that compels from Tovah’s striking opening scene to the emotional finish.

Dancing with Giants
Illusion Theater
February 23, 7:30 p.m.
February 24, 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.